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September-October 2010

Best practices in ­collaborative sexual assault prosecution

The Dallas DA’s Office formed a sexual assault prosecution team three years ago, modeling it after similarly specialized family violence teams. Here’s how it works.

Bobbie Villareal

Chief of the Family ­Violence Division, Criminal District Attorney’s Office in Dallas County

Erin Hendricks

Sexual Assault Prosecutor, Criminal District Attorney’s Office in Dallas County

Tania Loenneker

Family Violence Advocacy Program Manager, Criminal District Attorney’s Office in Dallas County

Successful prosecution of sexual assault crimes can be challenging. Due to lack of time and resources, the State’s best efforts can still sometimes leave victims out of touch with the justice process, resulting in their embarrassment, stigma, and further victimization. In 2007, led by the efforts of Dallas County Criminal District Attorney Craig Watkins, a new Sexual Assault Prosecution Team was formed to meet these challenges head-on.

One particular case

On May 12, 2004, Valerie Brown was sexually assaulted by Michael Murphy (not their real names), her boyfriend and the father of her child. Valerie called the police, went to Parkland Hospital for a sexual assault examination, was interviewed by a Dallas Police Detective, and went to a local domestic violence agency for counseling. The criminal case was filed with the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office and heard by a grand jury that summer, where it was no-billed.

       Right after the assault, Valerie and the baby moved in with her mother. Not too long after that, Valerie’s mother, her greatest source of emotional support, suddenly died. Broken and alone, Valerie returned to Murphy that same year, and his emotional abuse began again. In 2005, they had another child.

    In 2007, Murphy’s felony drug probation was revoked, and he was ordered to prison. Too soon thereafter, in the spring of 2008, Murphy was released on parole. In spite of her efforts years earlier to leave the relationship, Valerie returned to her abuser, and they conceived their third child. She was five months pregnant by summer’s end.

    In the early morning hours of August 5, 2008, an angry and intoxicated Murphy came home to his sleeping family and woke up Valerie to argue with her over his months-long suspicions of infidelity while he was incarcerated. Valerie, ever desperate to appease her boyfriend, tried to convince him that he had no reason to suspect her of being unfaithful.

    Murphy’s rage turned physical. He beat and raped Valerie and threatened to kill her with a kitchen knife. When she called 911, Murphy immediately started manipulating her, suggesting that she would be sending him to prison for her infidelity. He tried to convince her to lie to the police, to say that there had been an intruder who was responsible for the blood all over her face. Within minutes, Dallas police responded, arrested Murphy, and arranged to take Valerie to the hospital for a rape exam. His parents came to collect the children who had been in the next room, behind closed doors, probably terrified by what they heard.

    The story of how Valerie found safety, healing, and justice has almost everything to do with how the Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s Office handles sexual assault cases. Since 2007, the office has received state and federal grant funding to form the Sexual Assault Prosecution Team, the first of its kind in Texas. Its purpose, like that of the office’s Family Violence Division, is to meet crime victims’ unique needs while holding their abusers accountable.

    The team is made up of one felony prosecutor, one felony level investigator, and a specialized victim advocate, all of whom handle sexual assault cases where the victim was 17 or older at the time of the offense, regardless of the victim’s relationship with the defendant. This team is part of the Family Violence Division and can draw upon the support and resources of the larger specialized department. Due to the impact of trauma on victims of sexual assault and the complex issues that arise in the prosecution process, the team handles a smaller caseload that allows intensive contact between them and the victim, filing agencies, and outside support services. In 2009, the team was assigned more than 100 new sexual assault cases.

    Erin Hendricks, a seasoned felony prosecutor in the Family Violence Division, slipped easily into the specialized position of sexual assault prosecutor with her knowledge and expertise in working with sexual assault victims and her relationships with key partners in the community. In her role as the sexual assault prosecutor, she meets with victims in person immediately after indictment, before trial, or for case resolution and debriefing. Few other areas of prosecution have this close contact with a victim, but this ongoing communication through every step of the process is crucial for responsible prosecution. In some cases, the prosecutor can reach out to victims before case filing or indictment to better acquaint them with the criminal justice process and better dialogue about realistic expectations for the criminal justice system. Because the team is a part of the Family Violence Division, it facilitates the effective use of safety tools, such as the close monitoring of protective order applications and hearings and bond issues both before indictment and while the criminal case is pending. A specialized prosecutor also inherits a greater responsibility of educating the jury pool on the dynamics of intimate partner violence, typical responses by victims of trauma, and demystifying stereotypes common in our society.

    Juliana Martinez, the team’s bilingual victim advocate, came with prior experience with both adult and child victims of family violence and sexual assault. Her role is to build a relationship of trust with the victim while assessing her needs. Not only is the victim advocate making sure that the voice of the victim is heard in the process, but she also eases the prosecutor’s burden by addressing the victim’s emotional and basic survival needs so that the prosecutor can focus on the legal aspects of the case.

    Senior Sergeant Thad LaBarre is the seasoned felony investigator. Thad brought to the team years of experience in investigating crimes at a municipal police department in Dallas County. Thad, like any investigator assigned to a specialized sexual assault prosecution team, must have not only competence and exude authority but also possesses maturity, understanding, and compassion for victims of trauma.

Back to Valerie

Days after the rape and beating, Valerie was at the DA’s office applying for a protective order. The PO staff brought in Erin and Juliana to ensure that the legal facts were presented as effectively as possible early in the process so they could keep Valerie and her children safe. At the PO hearing, a timid and still bruised Valerie testified that she needed the court’s protection and feared that Murphy’s violence would continue. The protective order was granted.

    In September 2008, a Dallas County grand jury indicted Murphy for aggravated sexual assault with a deadly weapon. Already familiar with the facts of the case, Erin filed a motion to increase Murphy’s bond, and he remained in jail under a $150,000 bond with a hold for Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Right away, he began writing letters to Valerie and the children.

    Valerie started seeing a new counselor at the university where she was enrolled as a full-time nursing student, and she delivered their third child in December. Throughout the fall and into the new year, she came in to the DA’s office for several interviews with Erin and Juliana to give the full history of her relationship with Murphy and to prepare for trial.

    Once the case was set, Murphy’s letters to Valerie took a new form. His mother (the same grandmother who’d come to collect the children the night of the assault) showed up at Valerie’s door with a teddy bear dressed in a striped jailhouse T-shirt that said “Convicted of Love.” Valerie then got letters from Murphy’s aunt who begged her to “stop” the trial and asked how she wasn’t already satisfied with the fact that Murphy had been locked up for so many months. Everyone in his family was holding Valerie responsible for that awful night of the assault and Murphy’s time in jail.

    Then the case took a turn that caused Valerie more pain and inconvenience: Murphy’s attorney asked for a continuance to establish the paternity of the third baby. (Murphy was still convinced Valerie had been unfaithful while he was in prison.) Erin had Juliana join her in court when the defense attorney asked for the continuance. After hearing both prosecutor and defense counsel’s arguments, the judge asked Juliana for her opinion. She told the judge that Valerie was ready for her voice to be heard and asked the judge to expedite the court process. The judge set the trial date 60 days out.

    The DA’s office immediately looked for outside civil legal assistance for Valerie in the paternity action. Valerie found herself conflicted out for representation at the local legal aid office because Murphy and his mother had sought assistance from them in the past. The DA’s office was able to connect Valerie with a legal services provider that reviewed legal documents and prepared pleadings on her behalf for the remainder of the family court case but was unable to provide representation on short notice at the paternity hearing. In the meantime, Juliana accompanied Valerie to this upcoming appearance in family court. Valerie found great comfort and support in having an experienced advocate by her side in the courtroom, especially because Murphy’s family was represented by counsel.

    Just in time for the second trial setting in June 2009, tests confirmed that the youngest baby was Murphy’s, which not only emphasized the depth of his obsession with whether Valerie had strayed while he was in prison, but it also validated that Valerie had been telling the truth about her fidelity.

    Because Valerie relived the trauma and fear every time she had to talk about her sexual assault, Juliana provided ongoing information and support so she could be emotionally strong enough to testify. They discussed at length what to expect in court. As the trial approached, Juliana recommended that Valerie make a special appointment with her counselor to prepare her for the emotional aspect of trial. During that time, Juliana also coordinated with the DA’s crime victim liaison in completing the relocation paperwork, ultimately helping her receive compensation for medical expenses and counseling.

    The case went to trial in June 2009. Erin called on experienced family violence prosecutor Leah Ballard Thomson to pick the jury. Leah educated the venire about family violence dynamics and addressed issues of prior consensual sex and juror expectations for rape victim testimony.

    In trial, Valerie was amazing: strong, resolute, and this time unafraid to face her abuser in court. She was surrounded by friends and Juliana, and the presence of investigator Thad gave her an added sense of support and protection. Thad’s cooperation, communication, and relationship-building brought to-gether witnesses and agencies and made the case preparation and presentation flow smoothly.

    In addition to Valerie’s testimony, the State presented the responding officers, a doctor from Parkland, a forensic biologist, and the investigating detective. The State admitted into evidence the 911 tape, photos, the knife, medical and lab reports, and eventually written statements to rebut the defense’s theory, which was to discredit Valerie. The defense focused on Murphy’s claims of her infidelity and tried to expose inconsistencies in the case. The defense tried to minimize his criminal culpability by denying non-consensual sex and blaming Valerie for violence. Murphy was convicted of aggravated sexual assault with a deadly weapon.

    At punishment, the State presented the history of abuse through testimony from Valerie’s prior and current counselors, the doctor from Parkland from 2004, and a former probation officer who addressed Murphy’s utter lack of respect for authority. Murphy’s mother (who had testified for her son at the grand jury in 2004) testified on his behalf, and Murphy testified. He admitted at the punishment phase that he called Valerie a “dirty whore.” He went on to testify that he “never said [he] didn’t slap her [and] punch her.” He admitted he was wrong, and he apologized for his “sins,” but he maintained that it wasn’t sexual assault.

    Murphy was sentenced to 30 years in prison and the jury assessed a $10,000 fine. The jurors said they were proud of Valerie’s courage to testify and pleased to see she had moved on with her life. Valerie graduated with her degree in nursing and works as a school nurse. She lives with her three children in Dallas.

Conclusion

The Sexual Assault Prosecution Team works closely with other agencies toward a coordinated community response to sexual assault. The sexual assault prosecutor, investigator, and advocate have close relationships with local law enforcement agencies that allow for better case investigations and filings, as well as more thoughtful, uninterrupted victim services. These relationships also allow for opportunities to educate law enforcement and provide guidance on the documentation and evidence collection during investigation.

    In addition, the team collaborates with the community to achieve a more comprehensive response to victims’ needs. The team has been actively involved in the Dallas County Sexual Assault Coalition (DCSAC) from its inception. DCSAC is a coalition of area service providers, medical professionals, law enforcement, and other allied groups that recognize the ongoing and critical need to examine the community’s response to sexual assault survivors. Looking into the future, the team aims for effective prosecution in each of its hundred cases, and the hundreds to come, while providing quality services to every victim. Achieving best practices in the collaborative prosecution of sexual assault offenses, the Sexual Assault Prosecution Team hopes to be integrated into the county budget. In the process, the team strives for continued opportunities to develop innovative strategies that improve the response to the sexual assault victims of Dallas County.